When the 2019 NBA offseason kicked off, the Minnesota Timberwolves appeared to have a plan: reporting suggested that they’d bid to move up in the draft and then pursue the commitment of restricted free-agent D’Angelo Russell.
Gersson Rosas completed the first of those tasks by trading Dario Saric’s expiring contract in order to swap draft picks with the Phoenix Suns. It was a calculated gamble to unload Saric — a stretch forward whose contract expires next season — in order to acquire a prospect with greater potential who will be on a rookie-scale deal for the foreseeable future.
And that’s what Rosas got when he selected Jarrett Culver, a sophomore guard from Texas Tech, sixth overall. But given that Saric is a bonafide starter in this league, swapping him for a rookie ball-handler is a tactic that’s unlikely to engender short-term improvements; what the transaction did do, though, is add a dose of financial flexibility and on-court upside to this franchise’s future. That, it would seem, is Rosas’ primary prerogative: keep the powder dry and only light its fuse when his team’s prospects of achieving sustained success can be dramatically improved.
Apparently, Russell — who made his first all-star team with the Brooklyn Nets last season — would also have been an acquisition worthy of fireworks. At 23 years old, he fits the Wolves’ timeline; a lead ball-handler, he plays a position of need; an improving talent, he’s at least flashed the star-qualities that this front office is after.
So, Rosas went after him.
By most accounts, he pulled out all the stops in a bid to convince Russell to take his talents to Target Center. But that strategy carried risk in its own right — not only the risk that Russell might never live up to his contract, but also the risk that the Wolves could miss out on other valuable free agents while waiting for a decision to be made. And sure enough, that’s how it went down. Russell chose to sign with the Warriors, leaving Rosas and the Wolves without a premier lead guard or many other meaningful alternatives to target.
Sitting at that crossroad, Rosas could have elected to scrap his boom-or-bust motto, compensate players who can help bolster immediate success and fight for a playoff spot within a crowded Western Conference. He could have looked at last season’s results and been enthusiastic about some stretches of inspiring play. He could have attempted more seriously to work out a contract extension with Tyus Jones and then outbid the market for another proven rotational piece.
And it’s possible that this would have been enough to return the Wolves to relevance in 2019-20.
But a commitment to fighting for first-round postseason exits wouldn’t be consistent with Rosas’ M.O. — at least not as he’s portraying it to the public. What’s more, if he had been hired by the Wolves and snuggly latched onto a status quo that’s delivered frustration over the last several seasons, that could have been a cause for concern as well. Some level of wholesale change, from Rosas’ point of view, may have been imperative. And in each of his actions over the last several months, he’s shown that he’d rather stay ready to acquire the next available all-star than do what it takes to retain quality depth that can mask his team’s more structural shortcomings.
That could wind up being a perilous tactic, to be sure. Saric and Jones could make major improvements elsewhere and the Wolves could fail to lure better alternatives in the future. This reassembled roster could regress even more than would be anticipated in the near-term, thus causing frustration and fracturing within a locker room that’s been somewhat fragile in the past. But it’s Rosas’ gamble to make, and based on the success of his career to date, there’s a reason he’s comfortable moving forward with patience.
So he stuck to his guns when Russell was no longer a possibility. He traded for Shabazz Napier (27 years old) and Treveon Graham (25), two players on affordable, expiring deals who can help the Wolves’ second-unit backcourt. He claimed Tyrone Wallace (25), another point guard, off the waiver wire. He landed Jordan Bell (24) and Noah Vonleh (23) — a duo of bigs with some upside — on one-year deals near the veteran’s minimum. The only player that Rosas inked to a multi-year contract was 25-year-old forward Jake Layman (three years, $11.5M).
Uncoincidentally, four of those acquisitions have familiarity with the Wolves’ new coaching staff: Napier and Graham worked with Pablo Prigioni in Brooklyn while Napier, Layman and Vonleh spent time with David Vanterpool in Portland.
Obviously, that’s not the only trend to emerge from this series of signings; youth suggests the potential for improvements moving forward and the short-lived deals will provide more of an ability to make subsequent transactions.
But that smorgasbord of talent won’t be nearly as productive on an individual level as Jones, Saric, Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Anthony Tolliver were last year. Improvement from the Wolves will depend on trades, better health, internal development and schematic efficiencies. For better or for worse, Rosas has set himself up to continue swinging for the fences to the best of his ability. Presumably, it’s a philosophy that resonated with Wolves owner, Glen Taylor, when Rosas interviewed for the position; hopefully, it’s one that will be worth the wait for this fanbase.
Now, achieving max space would be no small feat for Rosas to accomplish — it would require rescinding each and every cap hold on the books next summer (Jeff Teague, Wallace, Vonleh, Napier, Graham, Bell) and trading away at least one other meaningful contract (Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington). To make matters worse, the 2020 free-agent class is relatively weak.
But maybe this report from Adrian Wojnarowski — a journalist whose relationship with Rosas appears to be strong — doesn’t need to be framed in such a literal sense. It’d be reasonable to assume that the Wolves are not, in fact, dead set on clearing the cap space that would be required to sign a max free agent. Instead, that they’d just like to have the greatest possible chance of acquiring, via trade or free agency, whichever All-NBA talent becomes available around the league.
Yes, the Wolves missed out on Russell the first chance they got, but the writing on the wall suggests he could be back on the trade block before too long. Sure, the Wizards are intent on hanging onto Bradley Beal for now, but what happens when they hire an actual general manager and struggle to win games into next season? Maybe the Trailblazers won’t live up to expectations and will finally decide to trade C.J. McCollum. It’s possible Devin Booker will get fed up with the dysfunction in Phoenix or New Orleans will decide to exchange Jrue Holiday for some assets that aid their exciting rebuilt.
In today’s NBA, it’s difficult to predict who will be obtainable when — but if recent history is any indication, someone good will be on the move soon. Rosas, without flinching, appears to be waiting for that day.
Ever since being hired in May, this group of decisionmakers has made it apparent that 2019-20 is not their primary focus, a fact that became somewhat undeniable when they chose not to match Jones’ offer sheet this week. Rosas has emphasized his goal of building around Towns’ “window” — evidently, he sees adaptability as a more valuable asset in that pursuit than the production of players like Jones or Saric, as deflating as that may sound when imagining the immediate implications.
Now it’s on Rosas to prove that such prudence is wise. That taking a hit in the short term by letting solid contributors walk will be justified down the road when a star player is acquired who accentuates Towns’ talents. Regardless, though, watching Jones move to Memphis was an example of the aggression that Rosas has thematically discussed; in many respects, matching that offer sheet would have been the timid approach. And given that many have wondered about the autonomy Rosas was bestowed, it’s comforting to see some evidence that he has both the freedom and the fearlessness to see this plan through with the Wolves.